Insecurity, Criminality, Hidden Powers and Visible Roots
Honduran society has become permeated with fear, anxiety and insecurity. The hidden powers of organized crime, which are linked to the public powers, are behind a rising rate of homicides, extortion, kidnapping and even massacres.
As the government loses control, the roots of the insecurity become more visible. They include the impoverishment of the majority, panic about daily survival and anguish about a future with no opportunities.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
One afternoon recently, Suyapa, an NGO employee, headed off along the main highway to San Pedro Sula. A pair of policemen in a patrol car—now part of the landscape—signaled her to pull over. As is standard practice, they asked to see her driver’s license and vehicle registration, which she gave them.
With the documents in hand, one of the policemen told her that the registration corresponded to a vehicle reported stolen. Suyapa responded that it was her car and the paperwork was in order. With that one of the cops pulled his pistol, forced her into the back seat of her car, then slid in beside her. His partner jumped into the driver’s seat and drove until they came to a dirt road leading to a cane field in the Sula Valley where they dumped her, making off with her car.
Homicides, kidnapping, extortion...Experiences like Suyapa’s are common all over the Sula Valley, the area hardest hit by acts linked to what is called organized crime, which bears all the signs of being linked to the police and influential political and economic power groups. According to some media reports, San Pedro Sula’s Forensic Medicine morgue reported 1,100 deaths in the Sula Valley between January and June, 80% of them with obvious signs of homicide. None of these cases was looked into by the Police Investigation Unit, hamstrung by its own deficiencies and the interests of the drug trafficking groups and car theft bands that have penetrated it. In this same period, San Pedro Sula insurance companies received 150 reports of stolen vehicles.
This information relates to only one area of the country. The reports of homicides, massacres, kidnapping, extortion and car theft are so frequent across the country that Honduran society has become permeated with fear and anxiety.
The government isThis public insecurity is the most dramatic legacy inherited by the government of Mel Zelaya and the most botched of his government’s ongoing chain of failures. President Zelaya closed June with the helpless cry of a man who no longer has a clue what to do with a government that has slipped out of his hands. “You tell me, please, what can be done to make justice function in Honduras?” he implored a group of business leaders and top government officials surrounding him during a local fair in San Pedro Sula, most of whom have already withdrawn their support and are reportedly negotiating in his name with those controlling organized crime.
hostage to idden powers
The public structures for investigating cases and applying justice are fragile and contaminated by the hidden powers. Moreover, the government has no ability to control these threads, which makes it hostage to sectors that have turned insecurity into a profitable long-term business.
An explosive confessionIn an article for envío earlier in the year we cited a high-level public official’s admission that 30% of police officers were involved in organized crime, 30% accepted it and the remaining 40% acknowledged their incapacity to do anything about it. We think the official’s figures fell short. In whose hands is the Police Investigation Unit? Everything suggests it’s the main bastion of organized crime.
June 25 marked the 32nd anniversary of the massacre of 14 people—including two priests whose bodies were dumped in a well then dynamited—on the Los Horcones hacienda belonging to Manuel Zelaya, the current President’s father. On that same date, Medical Examiner Dennis Castro Bobadilla, picked by President Zelaya to head up the Police Investigation Unit, declared that he accept the post under any circumstances. He explained that his decision was based on a recent admission to the security minister by retired General Alvaro Romero that over 50% of the Unit’s officers belong to one of the two Mexican cartels operating in Honduras, one specializing in stealing vehicles and the other in drug trafficking. Anyone who doesn’t belong to a car theft ring is involved in the drug trade.
These explosive declarations were made after the lynching then burning of three prisoners accused of killing two children at the end of May. These murders were just the latest of the continual prison vendettas that never merit even the most cursory police investigation. In those same days the director of penal centers declared that no state official could control the bloody actions within the prisons because they too are controlled by organized crime.
The murder of the In response, the President decreed a state of emergency in the penal centers and fired their director, along with the director of the Police Investigation Unit. Two days later, Army Captain Alejandro Humberto Motiño, a relative of the President and his aide-de-camp, was gunned down. For days the director-less Police Investigation Unit made no move to investigate the murder. It was rumored that Motiño’s killers had left the country, protected by organized crime or the violent youth gangs known as maras, and even that one of the actual gunmen had been killed.
The Honduran state appeared powerless to provide any public safety, and the country witnessed another display of the President’s helplessness in the face of the hidden powers. On the night of Wednesday, June 27, Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH) received a phone call that to her surprise turned out to be from President Zelaya. He wanted to know if she could shed any light on whether a body found in the village of La Cañada, south of the capital, might be one of the men who shot his aide-de-camp. The next day, Defense Minister Arístides Mejía confirmed that this human rights activist had more reliable information than those responsible for the Honduran state’s own investigation.
Why all the bloodshed?When the government isn’t busy wringing its hands in public, it is downplaying the importance of the acts of violence that implicate public officials or creating smoke screens to distract public attention, all of which leaves Honduran society awash in uncertainty.
The President and his Council of Ministers first declared that Motiño’s murder was a political crime whose real objective was to threaten the President. His private secretary, journalist Raúl Valladares, seconded the idea: “They kill and murder in the back, which is a clear sign [of a political crime]. The bloodshed is because this government is trying to benefit the people rather than the country’s powerful sectors.”
But when some began to speculate on the possible nexuses between this crime and personal issues or, even worse, some underground corridors of organized crime, the President attempted a diversionary tactic. His new version was to link the US publicity adviser of Pepe Lobo—the National Party’s presidential candidate and Zelaya’s main adversary in the last elections—with a campaign of terror that has masterminded massacres and other crimes, presumably to raise the profile of Lobo’s electoral proposal to institute the death penalty and show zero tolerance toward mara members.
Those plans supposedly included the Chamelecón massacre of December 23, 2004, when alleged gang members indiscriminately killed 28 bus passengers returning home to the outskirts of San Pedro Sula during the rush hour. There were suspicions about possible links between Lobo’s campaign and this crime even then, but the investigation instead led to the arrest and sentencing of two gang members, even though it was hard to imagine that a couple of miserable kids could have planned and pulled off such an attack. By again casting suspicion on Lobo, the President revived that terrifying memory, which did nothing to calm society’s fears.
If you sow errors, you’ll reap crisesThe declarations by the President and his private secretary that the murder was related to the political interests of power groups that feel affected by public policy decisions were part of the constant response by government figures to any manifestation of opposition. The government seems unaware that its social policy is erratic or that that its errors have only strengthened the hidden powers, who profit from any uncertainties generated by the government’s improvisations, ambivalences and ambiguities.
In its first month in office, the security minister himself stated that the insecurity being hyped by the media and lamented by society was merely a perception and had nothing to do with reality. Sixteen months later, the country witnesses more than 10 homicides a day and a total of over 10,000 homicides remain unsolved.
Absurd interpretations, This reality is a breeding ground for those who feed off insecurity, including the private security companies—more than a few of which are linked to former Army officers and the organized crime groups. It is also a breeding ground for people who base their decisions on the citizenry’s fear, even terror.
While it is true that the Zelaya government was bequeathed this convulsive situation by an administration that used insecurity as a shield to favor business deals involving its own public officials, that inheritance doesn’t explain everything. Its own systematic political blunders and the accumulation of social conflicts have helped aggravate the situation.
And there is no worse political error than resorting to conspiracy theories to explain what’s happening. The previous government’s security minister accused the grassroots movements of receiving money from drug trafficking to finance protests. Now the defense minister, once defined as a leftist, is accusing them of receiving outside financing to destabilize the government. And the president of the Liberal Party—who also chairs the party’s Central Executive Council—is accusing some unidentified rightwing force of stirring up discontent for its own obscure reasons.
On May 1, she decided to attend the grassroots marches celebrating International Workers’ Day, only to be showered with insults, bottles and rocks. Her interpretation was not long in coming: it wasn’t an expression of grassroots dissatisfaction with the Liberal government; it was another maneuver by these phantom right-wingers who had infiltrated the event to express their repulsion by the government’s pro-grassroots decisions.
She explained this with all the brazenness of a strict representative of the radical Left. Such machinations only indicate how hard it must be for the government to look within and discover in its own steps and among its own people the glaring signs of the crisis currently affecting Honduran society.
Hidden powers supportedThe violence and insecurity currently gripping the population are even more alarming because they are linked to structures of the state. Various non-governmental investigations agree that the systematic execution of young people in different cities is linked to police structures allied with segments of big capital. These deaths are presumably also linked to the organized crime sectors that control the country’s prisons and the decisions handed down by the judicial system.
by public powers
The most destabilizing discovery is that the fundamental decisions are made outside of the state and even without its support. The President’s version of the Chamelecón crime is frightful, but there are similar speculations about dozens of other massacres elsewhere in the country and the cruel precision killings committed both inside and outside the prisons that suggest vendettas between organized crime bands. There are seemingly well-founded claims that the groups related to organized crime have their own armies and control extensive territories in which they act with utter impunity because they are supported by police officers, mayors, legislators, judges… These hidden powers owe their success to the backing by elements within the state, particularly the police and judicial structures. We seem to be witnessing the construction of a country run by a criminal state.
Taking justice Into their own handsSince the government no longer seems capable of an effective response to the insecurity, there is a growing tendency
for people to seek private answers to the dangers and risks they run every day. This return to the law of the jungle has serious implications and in fact benefits the private companies that have official backing to provide security. This logic has led to the emergence of private groups that take justice into their own hands, thus explaining the increasing number of deaths—particularly of youths—in the country’s main citiesthat bear all the signs of organized executions.
The temptation is to seek some kind of response to the insecurity and violence through ever more repressive and violent measures. In recent months, security committees have been formed in various municipalities in which the police join forces with the local mayor’s office, Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, evangelical churches or leaders of local boards of trustees. The objective is to provide security to the citizenry through police posts and the purchase of vehicles and mobile phones to strengthen the police and identify people in each community who represent a risk to the citizenry. This form of organization, based on fear and denunciation, could lead to the militarization and arming of society.
Who’s “dangerous”?Attacking insecurity through an arms build-up and police surveillance blocks genuine answers and feeds the spiral of violence and fear. In this framework, it is not only the criminals and gang members who are viewed as a danger to society.
The security committees are already beginning to see anyone who demonstrates for social and salary demands as dangerous. This was demonstrated in the city of El Progreso, where assembly plants for re-export (maquilas) employ some 10,000 people and the abuse of workers’ rights is commonplace. In June, the AFL/Adeso maquila fired all of its workers who had attended a union-organizing meeting. In response to their protests, several local security committee members decided that the demands and protest actions were threatening the peace and endangering foreign investment. In a communiqué on June 22, the local Chamber of Commerce and the Municipal Corporation affirmed their “support to the maquila industry, threatened by people unconcerned about the damage they are causing the economy and stability of our municipality and our country by participating in actions that encourage disorder and anarchy, threatening our most important source of employment.”
The insecurity has other rootsThe insecurity produced by the violence, street crime and activities of organized crime threatens the rule of law. As long
as that insecurity is reduced to criminality, however, the responses will never reach beyond mere palliatives and will only feed the spiral of violence.
When Defense Minister Arístides Mejía met a few months ago with his hemispheric colleagues, he stated that security should center on the struggle against organized crime, drug trafficking and the violence sparked by youth gangs. The minister did not hesitate to invoke US government support to guarantee Latin American societies’ security and stability. Thus the formula to prevent violence is more repression by beefing up the military and the police in full alliance with the US government’s military meddling.
There could be no worse way to seek authentic responses than to de-link the current anxiety from the precarious life of the majority of the Honduran population. Various polls in recent months have shown that the Honduran citizenry’s main concern is the violence and crime. But close behind are problems such as unemployment, government corruption, the high cost of living, the lack of hospitals and public services and the environmental damage.
One doesn’t need to be an expert analyst to understand that in addition to violence and criminality, public insecurity is also a product of the absence of correct public policies, which keeps people uncertain about their daily survival and anguished about a future that looks to be getting ever worse.
The return of “National Security”?There’s a real danger that the sectors of power will insist on putting criminality in the same sack with social protest. The defense minister has said that he is investigating the sources of the financing for the protests and mobilizations of recent months. He is particularly focusing on protests to demand the repeal of the mining law or the law to privatize drinking water, and especially those involving peasants and indigenous people. These are surprising statements from a former law student at the National University in the early eighties who came out against the national security policy of the government of Suazo Córdova and General Álvarez Martínez. Now he seems to want to repeat their very actions. Among the worst results of the application of the national security doctrine in those years were the infiltration and division of various grassroots organizations, the weakening of the union movement, the subjection of the student movement and the cruel repression of the peasants and various social organizations. There’s a real danger that groups in both the government and big business are exploiting the fear and anxiety triggered by the crime wave to promote government interference in grassroots and other social organizations in an echo of the repressive policies of that national security doctrine.
According to the organizers of the recent protests, people are mobilizing using their own means, not money from abroad, as the defense minister would have people believe. They argue that if the defense minister believes his ministry has the competency to investigate the grassroots movement’s financing sources it should also investigate political party financing. National security is under far greater danger if the nation is beholden to a handful of party backers who make the winning candidate reward their support, exercising their will outside of the law and to the detriment of the people.
Where does so much There is no organized relationship between the social protests and the criminality. But the protests are directly related to the communities of western Honduras that are demanding repeal of the mining law, whose main articles were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. They also have to do with Olancho’s environmentalists, who are demanding the updating of forestry legislation to protect the forests and punish their destroyers.
insecurity come from?
There must be something seriously wrong if young people are emigrating en masse to the United States, if nearly a million and half compatriots lack work, if the health system doesn’t function, if homicides are growing but the investigation and justice systems aren’t acting, if income inequality is only growing, if people who suffered flooding are now at even greater risk and if issues are resolved more by the intervention of individuals than of state institutions.
Band-aids aren’t good enoughNone of this can be cured by applying band-aids, as all our governments of the past quarter of a century or more have tried to do. Recognizing the profound social injustice being suffered by the majority of the Honduran population is the only way to put the country on the road to finally surmounting this profound error.
Pool the data, link the different realities and open up to criticism, something largely missing in the government and big business. Surely the lack of access to land is linked to the disorderly growth of the marginalized urban barrios, to migration and to crime and youth violence.
We’re all responsible, We all bear our responsibility for Honduras’ failure. But we can’t proportion the same degree of blame to the peasants as to those responsible for defining agrarian policies. Those who have never had the chance to study and don’t know the laws don’t have the same responsibility as lawyers and judges expert in twisting the laws and judicial sentences. The female maquila workers whose rights have been violated can’t be as responsible for a labor conflict as the maquila bosses and Labor Ministry officials. A petty thief who jumps a fence can’t be blamed for the insecurity as much as an official who skirts legal proceedings to protect major tax evaders and embezzlers of public funds.
but not all equally
Can we put our heads together?Pooling the data would provide an opportunity to put our heads together and think seriously about the country’s grave structural problem. But how can the population think together if less than a year and a half into the new government politicians and officials are already focusing on the next electoral campaign?
If the country is to think, it has to shake off the traditional parties and professional politicians. It has to trust in the grassroots social sectors, which will sow and reap the commitments that Honduran society so needs in order to formulate proposals that address the insecurity at its very roots.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.